Sri Lankan Muslims are the greatest strength in the country’s fight against Islamic extremism. However, their radicalization is also the greatest long term threat
On Friday, the imam of a Sufi mosque in Saindamarudu was alerted by the locals about a suspicious crowd in a house in the neighbourhood housing scheme called, Bolivia village. That is an exclusively Muslim housing scheme of 400 houses built after the Indian Ocean tsunami. The owner of one of the houses there had given his residence on rent to a man who claims to be a telecom engineer from Kattankudy; since new tenants moved in, he has observed a stream of unusual visitors to his house.
A delegation from the local mosque, the Grama Sevaka and the owner visited the house to inquire and were confronted by the angry tenants.
The locals then alerted a passer -by traffic cop. A police team was dispatched from Kalmunai Police , and was fired upon as they approached the house.
Police Special Task Force and army were called in for help. As the troops encircled the house and evacuated residents in the nearby houses, around three gunmen kept firing. Later in the night, three explosions believed to be suicide blasts ripped through the house. Following day, troops found the remains of three men, believed to be gunmen, laying at the entrance of the house. Inside, charred bodies of 12 others, including six children, three women and three men were found. The men were believed to have blown themselves up killing the rest of the family members.
A woman and a child was recovered from wreckage and were later identified as the wife and the child of the mastermind of the suicide bomber Mohammed Zahran.
The father and brother of Zahran, Mohammed Rilwan who was mentioned in the previous intelligence memo were also identified among the dead. Prior to the raid on their hideout, the three men had recorded a video in which they claimed the credit for the previous attacks and urged the Muslims to give up earthly responsibilities to wage Jihad. Without the local help, the raid would not have been possible. In most part of the world, especially in the West, battle against Islamic extremism is fought with limited success exactly due to the lack of community cooperation. Instead, Muslims youth, mainly of immigrant origin give the middle finger to the police.
The greatest strength in Sri Lanka’s fight against Islamic extremism is the local Muslim community. Their cooperation is crucial anywhere, and especially in the East, where Muslim majority enclaves have already insulated from the rest of the country to a great deal.
Just like in Saindamarudu, the community is cooperating with the law enforcement authorities to help nab suspects. (One of the female suspects in police wanted list Fathima Lathifa, and the wife of one of the alleged vandals of Mawanella Budhdha statues was handed over to police by her parents)
However, the greatest long term threat to Sri Lanka is also the radicalization of the same Muslim community. If the current level of radicalization persists that would erode the future prospects of cooperation. Similarly, mishandling the situation, leading to mass victimization of Muslims due to security measures may also result in a fall out of the Muslim community with the Sri Lankan state.
Sri Lanka’s challenge would be to strike a balance.
To begin with that the country should come to grips with the full scale of radicalization, both in terms of violent extremism and non-violent extremism.
Last week, President Maithripala Sirisena belatedly banned National Thawheed Jammaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI) in Sri Lanka as per powers vested in him.
National Thawheed Jammaath is a breakaway group of Sri Lanka Thawheed Jaamaath (SLTJ). It was launched by Mohammed Zahran in 2012 after he broke away with a local mosque of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath. The first mosque of National Thawheed Jammaath was set up in a ramshackle hut in Kattankudy. Over the coming years, it grew in followers, resources and controversy it courted.
The first mosque of Thawheed Jammaath in Beruwela was set up in 2002. It immediately triggered a major push back from local moderate Muslims
Zahran was reportedly removed from the leadership of NTJ in March this year after a clash with local Sufi followers. The clash sent Zahran and his brothers to underground. However, another brother of Zahran was appointed as the new leader of NTJ, which cast doubt over the sincerity of the decision to remove the hate preacher.
Zahran and his followers then joined with a group from Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI). Local Thawheed Jammaath factions now claim innocence over the Easter Sunday Attacks and pin the blame on JMI.
However this explanation is too simplistic.
Thawheed Jammaath as a whole is propagating an austere form of Wahhabism based on literal interpretation of Quran and Hadith. It is this ideology of a recreation of medieval Islamic caliphate and a perceived clashed between Islam and the West that provides ideological inspiration for al Qaeda and Islamic State-led global Jihad. The only difference between other Thawheed Jaamaath factions and NTJ and JMI are their rationalization of use of violence- more specifically , the use of violence within Sri Lanka against Sri Lankan targets-to achieve their religious ends.
The purported fallout of NTJ from the rest is due to this fundamental difference. Baring that all groups advocates an austere and militant form of Islam with reintroduction of Sharia and suffocating Arabized social and cultural norms. They all have more in common with Al Qaeda’s ideological vision than moderate local Sufi Islam.
Their supposedly non-violent extremism is a stepping stone for violent extremism of global Salafi Jihad. Their followers travel back and forth between the two narratives.
That radicalization happened due to the politically influenced indifference towards encroaching Wahhabism and sheer lack of political will to act against the looming threat. The spread of Thawheed Jammaath to Sri Lanka happened in 2002 on the back of Al Qaeda-led Salafi Jihad after 9/11 attacks.
The first mosque of Thawheed Jammaath in Beruwela was set up in 2002. It immediately triggered a major push back from local moderate Muslims. Periodic sectarian clashes continued for the first decade. However, despite initial resistance, Thawheed Jammaath persisted, supported by large donations from Gulf states. More and more Muslims were lured into new Wahhabi brand of Islam. Financial and political calculations also led local Muslim political leadership to extend political patronage to creeping Wahhabism at the expense of moderate Sufi Islam. They may not have known the full scale of monstrosity that they were courting, however, their conduct effectively empowered Thawheed factions at the expense of moderate Islam.
There are more than 200 Thawheed mosques in the country, of which only a few are registered as places of worship. Thawheed Jammaath followers have encroached positions of Ministry of Islamic Affairs and institutions that cater specifically to Muslims.
Radicalization of Muslims is real and far reaching than one would assume. It cannot be combated merely by banning NTJ and JMI. Thawheed factions that are left out are not much different in terms of ideology they propagate. They may not espouse violence as of now, but, make no mistake, Islamic extremism is evolving and expansive ideology. They also provide sufficient radicalizing impetus. Suicide bombing is just a step away.
The problem is Sri Lanka cannot ban all Thawheed factions. A good number of Sri Lankan Muslims, in some estimates around 20 per cent of the Muslim population in Beruwela, are followers of Thawheed Jaamaath. Some of them may already be cooperating with Police to nab the followers of their splinter group.
On the other hand, banning would drive them underground. Sri Lanka should launch an open dialogue with these communities, at the same time keeping a tab on their preaching and violent impulses of their more zealous followers.
More importantly, the government should also launch a concerted programme to strengthen the moderate Sri Lankan Islam, empower their preachers, provide assistance to their Madrasas and encourage them to police their own communities for bad apple and to lead a counter radicalization narrative.
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